The Uneaten Pages


Some people have survived by eating paper. Even authors have to eat paper sometimes. Their predecessor must have been that anonymous monk who used to write with his right hand and eat with his left hand. They say that one prophetic morning he realized he had eaten everything he had written. What had really happened inside his body? For the monk, what was the meaning of the act of writing, being a writer, immortality, and his potential readers? Maybe he had found some fundamental answers which he had eaten, in rage, in hunger, by virtue of habit, or because there was nothing else to do.

A few hundred years later, in my native Albania, the monk has been reincarnated into another anonymous being. This slave to the lord was a poor man, the son of another poor and anonymous man, yet he inherited a bookcase from his father. His father’s dying words were:

“Money, poverty and life, these your children will find by themselves, but not books like these…”

Books must be treasured. The father had gone hungry in order to buy those books. The son inheriting them hasn’t the slightest idea that around the end of the 1950s, the Stalinist regime in Tirana banned numerous books, most of them masterpieces, written by Albanian or foreign writers. Some people who owned these volumes, those who couldn’t bear to surrender their copies to the special collection points where they would be turned into cardboard, or who couldn’t bring themselves to burn the books in their backyards, instead buried them underground, thereby risking severe punishment. Just think, those books, like the majority written by man, did nothing harmful but to teach the younger generations how this planet has been destroyed, how a sense of nobility is being lost, and especially how a man’s soul has become empty, for sale.

Trembling, the son grabbed a fishing boat, filled it with the books he had inherited, and set out to cross the border in Lake Ohrid. At first, no one noticed his absence. He was so insignificant that there was no reason to miss him! But in the meantime, he had begun to sense a certain value to the books: The government wouldn’t have banned them, if they hadn’t contained something hidden that might outlive the life of the regime, if they didn’t focus attention between the fronts in power, a force almost as powerful as the political. Why hadn’t the state banned bread, for instance?

The heir crossed the border easily, but he didn’t enter the waters of the neighboring state yet. To us, he was now an enemy of the people and to them, a potential secret agent.

He paused in the neutral waters. If he turned back, punishment awaited, but if he kept going, the neighbors would torture him until he accepted their “fiction”, that is until he pledged – thanks to a beating – that he really was a special agent of the state security service, an agent with a mission to send books in the mother tongue to our co-nationals who are slowly forgetting their language and customs. The neighbors always knew that the code of an extremely dangerous spy network could be hidden within a sentence, a metaphor, a description of nature or the weather, an event of joy or sadness.

Now, as he waited, the books could be read, with the attention given to an anthology, as very few books have ever been read, and as only some specialized readers could have read them. The fugitive remained in neutral waters. Never before had he been more in his own waters. He started to read, in order to forget his hunger and his worries, but also to understand why his father was so fond of these paper bricks. He read only during the daylight because as night fell, he had no light to read by. He read, and he waited, for us or the neighbours to make the first move.

But he didn’t want to faint from hunger, so he had to eat. The books. At first, he tore off and ate the plain pages, which had no text. But soon he reached pages with text. Only now he became a sort of literary critic, selecting which pages he would spare and which he would transform into faeces. What should be eaten: Mature fragments, or annexes? When does a literary message have a long life: After it is digested by the body’s chemicals and other elements, or if it remains on paper?

The frontier guards of the two countries had encircled the fugitive who had inherited the books, and they were waiting. They could not shoot him, because then everyone would know that neither regime – steeped in a bloody ideological confrontation – was democratic and that each was seriously violating fundamental human rights, such as the right to stay in neutral waters, to read and eat books. Meanwhile the fugitive faced a universal dilemma: Which was the last page he should eat? And by which author? What topic should he eat? He had enjoyed reading some of the pages enormously. He had a brilliant idea: Select his favorite pages, tear them out of the book very carefully, as if they were children’s skin, gather and order them carefully, and then eat all the other pages. While he ate them, he blessed the authors whose work he could eat, but he didn’t curse those whose works made you go hungry. Thankfully there were not many of the latter. Nonetheless, after a while, the book-eater felt obliged to eat some of his favorite pages too. Desperate now, but not entirely hopeless, he kept some paragraphs, and then just a sentence, a word, some punctuation marks, the gaps between words or letters. Then, in the boat, he discovered a little thin book, without a title (or with another book’s title), wearing the cover of another book, with the name of another author, or without an author’s name. Now is the moment to ask ourselves seriously: Is this fugitive and border crosser the Reader or the Author?

How could such a writer or reader escape Balkan frontier guards between the 1950s and 1990s? Particularly after World War II, when it became clear that reality had an endless and often humiliating imagination. Nevertheless, the art of writing seemed to be not only more human, but also more powerful, because strength comes not from having, but from choosing. So, I chose the author of the little volume from the neutral waters; I gave him a name that sounded like a nickname (Iko – runaway); I gave him newspapers and books to eat which deserved to be eaten, but also some secret files covering half a century; and I left him to confront the cruel border guards, who did not know how to predict fate, in a play written between the waters that join and divide two Balkan literatures.

After that I started eating fragments from the story. When I was full, I read what I hadn’t been able to eat. I promise that I couldn’t eat any more pages; that I couldn’t save anything but the strapline under the title, “Book – Fragments of life and letters, inspired by the Theatre”; and that nothing threatened my existence, except Death. 



Translated by Luminiţa Tărchilă

Published in Bridge Magazine